environment 4: forests left

16 October 2009

FORESTS LEFT

Junie Kalaw

Traditional politics dies hard.  Upon Mrs. Aquino’s exit, with the convening by President Fidel V. Ramos of a new legislature and the appointment of a new secretary for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the battle continues between those who wish to continue the existing system of commercial logging by a few Timber Licensing Agreement (TLA) holders in our natural forests and those who are demanding a change in the management and protection of our remaining forest resources through a moratorium on commercial logging.

At present 127 concessionaires have rights to about 5 million hectares of our forest.  Sadly, at least 45 of these concessionaires have violated the reforestation provisions of their leases.  Satellite date show that their concessions have open areas of more than 40%.

The logging industry, while it has made a few families extremely wealthy, has been a poverty-creating and environmentally destructive industry.  Foreign financial assistance conditioned on liberalizing trade and investment in our logging industry (e.g., the US$120 million Natural Resource Management Program of the U.S. Agency for International Development with the DENR) perpetuates this social inequality since only the wealthy and well-connected can be market players in the industry.  Claims to employment-generation and dollar earnings from the logging industry only serve to hide the fact that the percentage value added by labor in the industry is minimal and that whatever foreign exchange is obtained from exporting prime natural resources just goes to importations for the wants of the wealthy few in urban areas and not for the needs of the poor communities in rural areas.  Any government serious about poverty eradication cannot allow this to continue and at the same time be credible.

The 1992 World Bank Development Report cites a previous study by the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) that discloses that only 1% of commercial logging of natural forests has been found sustainable.   It is doubtful that the Philippines has a higher percentage.  The old forestry profession and academic discipline was a product of the needs of the logging industry, thus you have a number of foresters employed by the loggers claiming sustainable logging of natural forest with no substantive proof to show.

It needs repeating that a continuation of present policies is bad economics, bad social policy, and bad governance.  While the logging industry has been very profitable for TLA holders (according to the Asian Development Bank, the logging industry’s profits from 1972 to 1988 added up to US$42 billion), a recently concluded research study by the World Resources Institute estimates the depreciation of our natural capital in terms of forest, soil, and fisheries from 1970 to 1988 to have been 4% of our gross domestic product (GDP).  The depreciation is even bigger than the increase in the country’s foreign debt for that period, which is about 3.5% of GDP. This is the unaccounted cost that economists call “externalities” and is paid for not by the loggers but by the small farmers in terms of loss of topsoil and water for irrigation; by the small fisherfolk in terms of loss of catch due to siltation of coral reefs; and by indigenous people in terms of dislocation from their ancestral domain.

There are other unaccounted costs.  For instance, there are financial obligations arising from borrowed funds, like our Asian Development Bank loan of US$240 million for a much publicized reforestation program, which was in effect a subsidy for TLA holders since the effective cost of reforestation was much more than the rent captured by the government from TLA holders.  We also have to take into account the irreplaceable loss of life information encoded in various forms of plant, animal, and marine life in our forests and coral reefs.  This information is one of the most valuable resources of our country, which although lacking in financial resources and technological advantage, is nevertheless one of the richest repositories of information which research translates into food and medicine for our future.

As the ecologist Herman Daly points out, natural capital is not substitutable with man-made or human capital.  The needs of the poor have an irreducible physical form and quantity; no matter how many boats and fishing hands we put out to sea, if the fish stock is gone, then Filipinos will have no fish to eat.

Studies of the rainforests in Brazil show that extractive activities in the forest, such as harvesting of vines, resins, nuts, and medicinal plants, yield three times more economic value than the cutting of trees for lumber.  Studies in Bacquite Bay in Palawan show better income (in terms of alternative benefits) and longer-term employment for people from retaining the forest, including fishing and tourism, than from logging the area.

As a positive measure, small community-managed social forestry can be geared to respond to the housing needs of local communities.  The DENR Forestry Master Plan shows that commercial tree plantation can answer the major commercial needs for wood by 1995.  As a bottom line, importing necessary wood requirements from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) open market, with Malaysia and Indonesia as abundant suppliers, is a better option than cutting our remaining forest because logs are grossly undervalued as a resource in the international market.  It is a better use of foreign exchange than importing luxury items.

A politically convenient argument used by the past DENR administration to reject the total log ban bill cites the fact that big loggers can employ one armed guard for every 500 hectares of forest concession while the DENR has only one unarmed forest guard for every 4,000 hectares.  The proposition begs two fundamental questions: “For whom?” and “Against whom?” are the big loggers protecting the forest.  The answers are obvious: for their own profit, and mostly against the poor who squeeze out a living doing slash-and-burn subsistence agriculture, and the small illegal loggers from poor communities around the areas.

This is a diversionary argument often raised by the public relations writers of the wood industry lobby.  Their reasoning is onerous in the sense that it picks only on the last segment of a chain of events that causes the destruction of our forests and in effect puts the blame on the victims of resource-deprivation caused by bad social policies, such as our current forest policies.  The need to provide for the poor’s basic fuel needs is one of the main arguments for stopping the destruction of forests so that forests can be managed to yield fuel wood without killing the trees.

The proposition also goes against our historical experience, which shows that the successful and sustainable use of natural resources is realized when regulations for access and benefits are determined and enforced communally.  This is different from reverting control back to government wherein natural resources are viewed as “free” public goods or part of the political bounty from which it is all right to steal.

The continued legalization of the plunder of our forest resources by a few powerful TLA holders completely contradicts the present government’s announced policy of people participation in the control and management of their resources for their own ecological protection and development.  The continuation of such destructive policies goes against the primary responsibility of government to provide basic “natural” security, by which is meant access to clean water, fresh air, fertile soil, and safe habitat for its citizens.

Ever since our Western-modeled Constitution conferred on the state the exclusive rights to our natural resources, and ever since our politicians built a culture of appropriating these resources as a means for developing political patronage, our ability to use our natural resources to address poverty and ensure a socially just and equitable development for the people has been highjacked.   The pressure on the president to appoint a former logger and a political creditor as head of the DENR, through the gritted teeth of politicians mouthing political campaign slogans against patronage politics and for environmental protection, attests to this.

Manila Chronicle, 7 August 1992

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